Guest post by Peter T.
(For his previous posts, see here, here, and here.)
What are ISIS’ prospects of holding out against the coalition now formed against them? And how do the military prospects inform the outlook for a political resolution of the civil wars?
ISIS continues to hold significant parts of northern and western Iraq and north-east Syria, and is putting up a stiff resistance to Iraqi efforts to regain Ramadi and to a Russian-backed Syrian offensive around Aleppo. Various Islamic radical movements around the world continue to sign on as ISIS affiliates, and the extreme violence (gruesome forms of execution, suicide attacks, mosque bombings) characteristic of ISIS has spread to Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and further. How far can ISIS go?
ISIS is several things. At the core, it is a millenarian movement, preparing for (and trying to bring about) the end of days. It draws on Salafist Islam, Islamic eschatological doctrines and holy warrior traditions, and seeks purity through violence. This mix is attractive to many young men, and at the centre of ISIS military strength are some few thousands of devotees – fierce, cohesive, aggressive and, by now, thoroughly competent in battle. Around this core are Sunni tribe members, local conscripts, and foreign volunteers, adding up to some tens of thousands.
Against ISIS are the Iraqi and Syrian armies, Iraqi Shi'a militias, some Sunni tribes, Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, competing rebel groups in Syria and, of course, Western (mostly U.S.) and Russian air forces and Iranian advisors. Numerically, this coalition is far stronger. It is also better equipped and supplied, and can draw on much larger populations. Yet the record, so far, is decidedly mixed. The regular Iraqi Army performed poorly against ISIS up to mid-2014. The Syrian Army has likewise not done too well. Iraqi Kurdish forces have been effective in defense, but made very limited gains. The Syrian Kurds have done better, sealing off the border with Turkey as far west as the Euphrates, but lack the numbers and equipment to attack major ISIS strongholds directly. In Iraq, the most effective forces have been the Shi'a militias and in Syria the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
Up to now ISIS has been able to offset numbers with elan, ferocity, cohesion, greater military competence, and the advantages offered by being on the offensive. These have been enough to seize territory against weak opposition, but not enough to overcome any determined resistance. In the longer run, they are unlikely to be enough to hold what ISIS has gained.
ISIS has been slowly but steadily losing territory and populations in Iraq since mid-2014, and must now defend against greater forces along a wide front. Forces have to be tied down in defence of key points, such as the roads between Mosul and Raqqa. As the aura of success fades, and as supply tightens, its tribal allies and subordinates become less reliable, and greater pressure is needed to keep them in line. At the same time, the competence and morale of its enemies rises. Each successful battle (Kobane, Tel Abyad, Tikrit, Baiji, Hassakah, Shengal, currently Ramadi) costs ISIS core cadres and chips away at its aura of invincibility. Taking towns ringed with IEDs and defended to the last is a slow process, but it can be and has been done. This is not blitzkrieg, but a steady pressure against a determined but weaker force.
Military geography does not favour ISIS. Both Mosul and Raqqa are exposed, and comparatively minor gains by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq or eastern Syria would sever communication between the two. Likewise, ISIS has to hold Euphrates valley towns to access western Anbar and the Saudi border, but garrisons are vulnerable to Iraqi forces and their supply open to air attack. And ISIS has to maintain forces in northern Syria against the very effective Kurdish YPG to ensure access to the Turkish border. So its striking power is limited and its small elite vulnerable to attrition.
The Balance in Syria
Calculation of the military and political situation in Syria is more complex than in Iraq. The Assad regime in Damascus cannot muster the same numbers or depth of popular commitment as Baghdad, has to fight on several fronts, and faces a relatively stronger set of enemies. Its own indiscriminate use of fire-power has alienated many who might otherwise find it the lesser evil. While Baghdad enjoys support from all sides, the U.S. is hostile to the regime in Damascus and continues to tinker futilely with support for a “third party” -- a secular (or at least non-fundamentalist) and pro-democratic opposition. Although the Pentagon has recently ended its effort to train separate ‘moderate’ forces to fight ISIS, a CIA program to train ‘moderates’ to fight Assad apparently continues. Turkey is also hostile to Assad, and somewhat supportive, in terms of actions if not rhetoric, of both ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
In the broader view, it is all one war. Not only is ISIS a common enemy (certainly for all Shi’a, at any rate), but Syrian Allawis, the core supporters of the Assad regime, are close to the Twelver Shi'ism of Iraq (and Iran), the Zainab shrine near Damascus is a major Shi'a pilgrimage centre, and there are close family ties between leading Shi'a religious families in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Iraqi militia are reported to have deployed to Syria in support of the regime, and Iraqi or Kurdish successes in northern Iraq will certainly be pursued into Syria – Iraq is not about to halt its campaign against ISIS at the border.
A deal – or even a stalemate – with ISIS is hard to envisage (one Syrian rebel leader observed “You can't talk to them; they take their orders from God”). If defeats continue, ISIS is likely to go the way of their Algerian equivalent, the GIA (or, for that matter, the several similar groups that arose in 17th-century Europe): splintering in defeat into deserters and die-hards. It may be possible to broker an accord between Damascus and the rebel groups in southern Syria, and possibly even with the Nusra Front, along the lines of the resolution of the Algerian civil war. For that to happen, first ISIS would need to be defeated, and then both the regime and the rebels convinced that a military solution is out of reach. Both are some way off.
I used to work as an intelligence analyst, a profession notorious for hedging bets. But, if I were pressed to give a definite forecast, I would say that ISIS is unlikely to hang on as an organised force for more than another two years, and the defeat of ISIS is a precondition for any resolution of the Syrian civil war. That said, the defeat of ISIS is contingent on the coalition against them maintaining its present loose unity, and on the ability of the Damascus regime to avoid further major losses of territory.
One effect of the war is that whatever remained of the Shi'a tradition of political quietude has been largely abandoned. While Khomeini's advocacy of a commanding political role for the clergy remains controversial, pretty much all the leading Shi'a figures advocate some form of political activism. The days when the response to regime oppression was to don one's death shroud and wait are gone. This in itself makes the outcome of the civil wars pivotal for the wider Muslim community.
-- Peter T.